Dressage Competition Camp – July 7th & 8th

The popularity of training camps for riders is growing and for good reason. It is a training format that I had never experienced until last week. Although I did not take a horse along to Moulton Equestrian Centre I was made to feel very much a part of the group, which was a lovely experience. I took part in the dismounted sessions and found it to be both thought-provoking and valuable.

Where a camp varies from say a two or three-day clinic is in the scope of the activities that are included; This is where they have particular value. There is scope for both mounted and dismounted learning opportunities, focusing on the mind and body of the rider. Most importantly of all, there is plenty of opportunity for the riders to talk to one another and to the coach in a relaxed and informal setting.

I love to learn from riding in and auditing at clinics. Riders and coaches can learn a massive amount that way, but there are drawbacks. At a clinic there is usually silence prevailing because one or other of the riders is under tuition. When my riding session is coming to an end I have often had questions and invariably the clinician is only too happy to answer them but there is alway the sense of time pressure, sometimes a sense of intruding upon the tiny amount of time a clinician gets to have a drink and momentarily relax between the lessons. If I have four questions then for these reasons I ask only one or two. There have been times that clinics have ended with wonderfully social dinners or even parties, but asking riding related questions at times like that seems downright rude; unless the trainer brings up the subject of my horse or my riding then I am certainly not going to.

Where a camp differs, and certainly where Alison’s camp differed, is that the trainer spends more time with the participants. There are structured sessions and around these there is time where discussions can evolve in a less formal way, questions can be asked and discussions among the group can take place. This is something that, given the right company, I like very much.

Day One – Individual Ridden Sessions

The first day of the camp was dedicated to individual riding sessions, a dismounted session with work on rider mindset, and then a ridden session as a group. There was a positive, inclusive atmosphere from the beginning. The first horse in was Sardra, a beautiful mare who has only recently returned to work, ridden by her owner Tory Dobb. Sardra is in her late teens, but you really wouldn’t know it. Given the rather challenging whether we were having the indoor arena was very hot indeed. All of the horses and riders coped very well and Alison naturally tailored the work to suit the situation. For a horse recently returned to work, I was impressed with Sardra’s willingness. She really seemed to enjoy the work and became much more forward as the session progressed. One of the stepping-stones to this was Alison’s instruction to keep the correct tempo in the walk, not to hurry it and to use the trot to help Sardra think forward.

Let the rhythm come, don’t hurry the tempo!

Encouraging Tory to apply the reins, so that she had a light but more defined contact also helped encourage Sardra to go forward. She made some corrections to Tory’s lower leg position and leg aid application; this helped too. It has a double benefit of improving the rider’s body balance, which encourages a forward mindset in the horse, and it makes the aid delivery quicker and lighter, thus more effective. Tory took this correction on board and the benefit of it stayed in place through the rest of the session.

As Alison pointed out, it was important for Sardra that the gymnastic challenges were kept quite easily achievable. She is clearly a very giving and sweet-tempered horse. When you train an uncomplaining horse it is especially important to keep your demands at a level that will build the horse’s confidence. As they worked between the gaits she encouraged Tory to allow Sardra’s hind legs through into the downward transitions. This is something that we can all do well to think about, in every transition we ride. It encourages us to keep the contact soft and allowing, it encourages us to think forward when we transition down and not block the hocks.

Taking a rider’s focus off of a particular thing is sometimes the first step the coach must take to help them improve it. This was the case with Tory and Sardra’s use of the corners. By asking Tory to initially make easy, blunted corners whilst keeping the bend correct they were able by the end of the session to ride deeper corners in good balance. This doesn’t happen by magic of course and nor simply because of the passage of time. There was a key to the situation and it was all about straightness. Straightness is not simply a matter of travelling along a line that doesn’t wobble, in part it is about the horse using both hind legs correctly, both sides of its body equally, and connecting lightly but evenly to both hands. Early in the session Alison identified that contact was an area for this combination to work on and it was a clear focus through the session.

It was in the canter work that the most obvious changes took place, again due to the influence of straightening the horse and equalising the contact. One of the ways that Alison enabled Tory to achieve the improvement was through judicious use of counter bend. For a few strides prior to the transition she asked Tory to put Sardra into counter flexion and a gentle degree of counter bend. Upon returning to true bend they immediately struck off into the canter. This exercise has a clear gymnastic benefit to the horse and in addition it made the rider more aware of what became her outside rein going into the canter. The result was a clearer moment of suspension, more energy and more ‘jump’ in each stride. This was a great demonstration of the principle that straightness allows impulsion to develop in the mind and body of the horse.

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Many riders don’t get to experience riding in a 20 x 60 metre arena on a daily basis and Karen Browne mentioned this at the start of her individual session with Harvey. Riding in the long arena when you usually train in a short arena, can challenge both the stamina of a horse and the spacial awareness of the rider. Harvey, an eighteen year old Welsh section D gelding, has belonged to Karen for nine years and they have explored a variety of activities together. Karen has an interest in biomechanics and is keen to explore dressage in greater depth with Harvey. They have taken part in tests at Prelim level before and also have experience together in endurance riding and jumping. Harvey is a gorgeous horse, with the energy levels and positive attitude that are so often found in Welsh horses. His basic gaits were very good and showed all the promise you could want for future development. What has struck me many times, and did so again with these horses, is how a well cared for horse in its late teens or early twenties often moves better than a poorly trained horse of six or seven.

The main focus for Karen in the early part of the session was a correction to her upper body position. Harvey had initially shown a tendency to fall in. There is a wise old saying that “a crooked rider never made a straight horse” and this applies to us all to some degree or other. We are endlessly correcting our bodies to correct the bodies of our horses. There are those who teach only the effect of hand or leg in cases like these but Alison is of course a far more educated teacher! She made numerous small, relevant changes to the positions of the riders throughout the camp and it was lovely to see that connection in place. Alison corrected Karen’s upper body position relative to the line of travel. She did this skilfully by asking her to bring her outside shoulder around, rather than by asking her to take her inside shoulder back. This has the advantage of avoiding excessive twisting of the upper body and the collapsing that can go along with it. It is also easier for the rider to maintain the outside hand position and rein contact when it is done this way.

It is great to work with riders who have done ‘a bit of everything’ rather than those who have dressage focused tunnel vision. The reason for this is that, like Harvey, their horses often have a lovely unspoilt basis to begin training. There was no incorrect training to undo, no hand imposed tensions in the poll or the back. The flip side, if it can even be called that, is that Harvey had not yet learnt to gather his body under him and explore its full power and gymnastic potential. Even at eighteen you could see that he had plenty of scope for this though. Alison gave Karen an idea, an image to keep in her mind. It was of a big elastic band around Harvey’s whole body, there to encourage spring and elasticity in his movement. It gave Karen the idea of elastic connection. Throughout the session I could see this starting to grow and develop. Like the corrections to a rider’s seat, a transformation like this is gradual and takes an ongoing effort to make sure it takes root.

“I loved this clinic. It was relaxed and everything was broken down so it was easy to understand. Roll on my next Dressage!”  Karen Browne

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A positional correction will usually feel alien to the rider at first. As Karen put it “it feels right and wrong at the same time”.  It is the reward the horse gives the rider that becomes a marker of the change and acts as a motivation to sustain the change. Harvey discovered a more springy, softer way of going through the session and the contact improved. Karen noticed his lower head carriage and Alison described it very appropriately as “a wonderful by-product”; Harvey had in fact begun to noticeably soften and lift his top-line into early stage roundness. It was a lovely transformation, that showed his movement to even greater advantage. Working into the canter transitions Alison gave the following set of instructions:

“Build the trot, engage the outside rein and think canter”.

The result fitted exactly with the imagery that she had suggested to Karen at the start. It was as though Harvey had a big elastic band around him, he had become more elastic in body and mind.

One thing that I noticed throughout the sessions was how the horses all gravitated to Alison when they had the chance; at the start and end of the sessions and when she stopped them to explain something to the rider. This is always a good sign to me. The horse, the rider and the coach are a unit of three and trust has to exist between all parties.

Karen Kendall’s thirteen year old piebald cob Seamus had previously hacked and taken part in endurance rides. Karen is aiming to improve his work in the school, with the goal of taking part in a riding club quadrille this September. Karen has Arthritis in both hips and, because of this, her legs take time to relax into position at the start of every ride. Improving a rider’s seat is as much about ensuring the rider has time for relaxation and comfort as it is about body alignment. Alison made a quick correction to encourage soft bend in Karen’s elbow, with a virtually immediate improvement taking place in the contact. Seamus’ primary issue has been with going forward. From my experience with horses of his type, and no doubt this was the case for Alison too, it is clear that fitness and coordination are the underlying factors, rather than a lack of willingness. Like many horses with substantial bone structures, Seamus will take time to develop the muscle power he requires to work at his absolute best.

Seamus and Karen have only begun working with Alison very recently and it was clear that they are both building self-confidence thanks to her knowledgable and patient approach. In the two ridden sessions I saw Seamus grow in confidence and offer work willingly that had apparently been something of a battleground in the past. A key factor in this was the rider’s tone of voice. How can something so subtle, that is not a body aid make such a difference? Well, I think it is because tone of voice reveals the rider’s underlying state of mind.  Alison picked up on some underlying mental tension and quietly reassured Karen, asking her to make a very specific change to her tone of voice if she uses it for upward transitions. From that moment on an upbeat, positive, friendly voice aid backed up the leg and it took both horse and rider onto an upward psychological spiral that was lovely to see. Seamus definitely needs a tone that says “you can do this” much more than he needs a tone that says”you will do this”.

 

Seamus offered much more sustained forwardness as the session progressed and many of the improvement that were coming into Seamus’ work were by products of this. Controlling his shoulders on the circles was an area that Alison and Karen focused on. Keeping the shape and dimensions of the circles depends first on controlling the shoulder mass of the horse and only then can consistent bend exist. By the end of the session Karen had a great deal more control of Seamus’ shoulders. He was flowing around the circles in trot better than ever before. The physical change in him was clear and he had a happy look on his face, as did Karen! Looking at Seamus I could clearly see his potential; given time to get stronger and lighter, fitter and even more confident he will make a beautiful quadrille horse or competition horse. There is no such thing as a dressage horse. Dressage is a process that exists to serve the horse and the rider. As they continue to train with Alison I am certain that this process will be the making of Seamus, mentally and physically. He showed a lovely hint of things to come in the free walk towards the end of the session when he stretched down, held the connection, lifted his back and his walk got a rather lovely swing to it.

“I really benefitted from the ridden sessions and then discussing and breaking it down into chunks. I feel positive about our future in dressage and excited to move on”  Karen Kendall

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Mindset Session

We chose to take the dismounted session outside. Once the horses were settled into their stables we found a bench in the shade. I took part in this session and so my impressions are those of a participant as much as an observer. Preliminary 13 was the test Alison had chosen to look at for the session. We began by talking about how we learn tests. For me letters don’t really come into it much because I learn patterns, usually linked together in blocks. Alison asked us to begin learning the test, she then stopped us part way through to focus on one particular movement. Our minds were in a focused state at this point. The movement that we focused on for the visualisation was the section of trot along the wall after the corner and a twenty metre circle halfway down the long side – working trot H to E, with the circle at E. There is a give and retake of the reins on the second half of the circle as you cross the centre line. We used this movement to create a visualisation.

Despite being familiar with visualisations and accustomed to using them in training I did something that surprised me. I set myself up in my mind, trotting down the wall and onto my circle. The sun was warming me, the scent of gently perspiring horse was rising to my nostrils, I could feel the stirrup treads gently under my feet and my seat bones  were moving with the horse, the birds were singing and all was well. The trot tempo was steady, the contact was nice and the bend was rather pleasing. Then I came to the give and retake. I did a quick, token arm gesture totally unlike anything I would normally call a decent give and retake. I need not have moved my arms at all during a visualisation. The phrase “what I should be doing” came up from one of the riders and although I hadn’t said it, I too had thought it. Alison suggested we reframe that as “what I would like to do”. The way we talk about ourselves and to ourselves is critically important; language really matters to mindset. When I went through my visualisation again I made sure that my give and retake was the real thing! In our visualisations we must not mark the movements but fully create them in our mind.

For riders who might not have worked with visualisation before, the main surprise and the main challenge too is that they must be in real-time. It must take you as long to ride your movement in your visualisation as it would to ride it on your horse. The second thing is that they are multi sensory. Alison encouraged the riders to think about what they could see, hear and feel through the visualisation. For the exercise to work it is vital to make the experience as real as possible. We all jotted down what we had been aware of. Because I have been trained to soften my eyes, look up and, on a circle I take my outside eye line to the inside ear tip of the horse, the view for me was a wide-angle, soft focus, constantly moving panorama of my current home arena. I was aware of hearing birdsong and the footfalls of the horse. The perceived sensation of movement revolved around my hips and seat bones primarily, with the pleasant rein contact and the stirrup tread contact being part of my awareness too. Overall I was aware of my body positioning for the circle. My thinking felt clear and calm because of the soft focus and the steady tempo. My state of mind could have been categorised as calmly alert. That is probably the ideal state to ride and also to compete in. This is one of the ways in which repeated visualisations really do help riders.

We were then asked to choose a movement in the test which we would find challenging. I thought of a particular horse I know and decided that the free walk would be our greatest challenge in that test. It is a quietly challenging movement and not to be underestimated. In Prelim 13 it carries a double score and that in itself says something about the challenges and importance of that movement as an indicator of quality training. One of my teachers used to say to us

“Remember it is free walk on a long rein, not long walk on a free rein!”

Whilst there will be less contact than in an extended walk, there is still a connection to preserve through the stretch. With a horse that is nervous and who can be inattentive it is often easier to ride an extended walk, where the horse remains on a more defined contact and therefore is more easily kept on the aids, than it is to ride a free walk. That was what I jotted down for my “issue” with the movement. I was asked to make a second column for what I wanted in the movement and it looked like this:

  • Staying focused, taking the contact down, moving freely into a good over-track, with the back lifting and swinging under me.
  • Remaining focused and on the aids for as long as I want the stretch to last.

Exploring the things I wanted gave me the blueprint for how to change the issue into the things I wanted. I was able to come up with a plan. I decided that I would not try initially to go for gold in that movement. In training I would ride it progressively from a smaller stretch, keeping the connection between horse and I, to a greater stretch as time went on. In a very spooky environment I would ride for a modestly respectable mark, so as not to wreck the movement altogether. I have always believed in knowing when to ride for a modest gain, a solid confidence building result. Showjumping taught me that. There is definitely a dressage version of the slow careful clear round and it is a valuable thing. Like all of the participants I had, through this exercise, found my own solutions. Therein lies one of the differences between coaching and teaching. An exercise like this helps riders to draw on their own reserves and that is something every rider can benefit from. It really creates confidence.

“I love the inclusivity of the session and the opportunity to discuss and process the ridden sessions. It was really helpful to share experiences and have the chance to learn from each other”  Tory Dobb

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The Group Ridden Session

We were all back indoors for the group ridden session. This was designed to have some shared objectives and some individual ones. Some of the shared objectives were about using the space and getting used to sharing the space. Sooner or later we all come up against others who warm up in a less than friendly fashion. Alison had some great, constructive advice for dealing with this. It involved positive body language and making a polite personal connection with the rider in question. A confident smile or a compliment can go a long way. It enables you to feel pro active rather than reactive to that person. Many riders don’t get the opportunity to ride in with others on a day-to-day basis and warming up arenas can come as a shock to the system. Having a group session built into the camp was a very good idea for this reason alone.

When it came to deciding the individual objectives it was clear how much confidence all of the riders had gained throughout the day. Rather than focusing on more of the same from their earlier session, they wanted to explore some lateral work with their horses. These choices were very appropriate extensions of what they had already been working on. There is nothing like shoulder in or quarter walk pirouettes to help gain control of the horse’s shoulders and increase straightness. For some horses it was the very beginning of their work in these movements and others had already made a start. By the end of the session all of the riders were more at home with the aids, more relaxed in their bodies and the horses showed some very nice responses. All through the session Alison built upon the basics that had been put in place earlier, keeping the riders aligned correctly and the horses on an even contact through both sides of their bodies. The work was approached very correctly and the horses all showed better walk, trot and canter as a result. That is the mark of correct lateral work, that it improves the forwards locomotion on a single track. You can’t ask for more after a day’s work than for greater longitudinal balance, better lateral balance and a marked increase in the beauty of  a horse’s movement.

Day Two – BD Competition at Moulton EC

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The second day of the camp was dedicated to the competition itself. Not all of the riders from the previous day were planning to compete and two new horses joined the group. The beautiful Stella, who belongs to Diane Underwood, totally lived up to her name. I watched Alison work with this combination at the start of the day and again through their warm up. Stella worked with great consistency and focus. She has the ride-ability factor and seemed, admittedly on short acquaintance, to be an absolute sweetheart. Her movement clearly had the potential to be big and I really liked that Diane and Alison kept her in good tempo and good balance throughout. Stella’s movement is cadenced, but soft, which shows that she habitually works in a state of relaxation.

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Stella clearly has a high level of confidence in Diane. She worked in a strange arena just as though she’d been there forever. That attitude to life is a wonderful thing to work with; it means you can focus on the technical aspects of training rather than on managing behaviours. I suspected that she might, at some point in her life, have been ridden in a way that had destabilised the base of her neck. This usually leaves a mark on the horse’s way of going that takes skill and determination to correct. As Alison put it “she is learning that we are not at home to wiggling the neck”! Stella was showing very sound Elementary level work with lots of promise for reaching the higher levels. Keeping the focus on straightness and balance is certainly the way to do exactly that! Diane and Stella produced a really lovely test to take second place in the BD Elementary Freestyle to Music.

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I also got to meet the very handsome Beau, who belongs to Tamasine Thompson. It is clear that Beau is a horse with a lot of personality. He and Tamasine clearly have a very strong bond. I can totally understand why someone would fall for this horse. Something that seems paradoxical in horses applies to him; I realised I had met yet another example of the brave but spooky horse. Beau had quite a career as an event horse and his courageous, idiosyncratic nature is written in every line of him and every gesture. His eyes have a powerful look I’ve seen in great racehorses. On the other hand he clearly finds the world a spooky place to live in. This paradox is familiar to me and I have ridden several horses who exhibited similar behaviours of high courage and high reactivity. My conclusion is that they are the ones most determined to remain alive, the successful ones in survival terms. When asked to do a job other horses would balk at, they get on and do it, but if a leaf blows off a tree then you’d better fasten your seatbelt!  That Beau showed some tension in his test was no surprise. From observing him outside of the arena I was pretty much expecting it. He’s the kind of horse that can give you fireworks, of the sort you want and the sort you don’t!

There were some issues with the sound system and before the test got going Beau was met with a screeching noise that would have put the wind up many horses! He dealt with that really rather well but I don’t think it increased his general happiness level with that particular environment. Each time Beau had a spook Tamasine handled it tactfully and effectively; encouraging him to relax and listen. You cannot force relaxation, it is impossible. If the tension comes from the mind of the horse then all you can do is ride correctly, confidently and reassuringly whilst you wait for it to pass. Of course the tension levels will have a domino impact on other factors in the horse’s way of going. It would be my hope that as Beau advances in his training he will offer more of his best and exhibit less of the tensions. I say this because when Beau settles he shows movement that is eye-catching, athletic, and cadenced. He has all of the presence you could ever want, but of course it tends to be the challenging horses who do.

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Sardra’s test in the BD Preliminary Freestyle to Music was absolutely lovely to watch. In spite of being recently back in work, having travelled on both days of the weekend and having worked fairly hard on the first day, she was if anything more forward. Her canter work was enthusiastic and she looked like she was really enjoying herself. Some horses just come alive to music and I wonder if she is one of them. All of the improvements that Alison and Tory had worked on through Saturday were visible in the test and it was great to see everything fall into place. Not only was the test a pleasure to watch, it had a very successful outcome; a good score and a red rosette, but most importantly of all a happy horse and rider!

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The level of support that Alison gave each of the riders was wonderful. Having a coach on hand to help you warm up is something that many riders don’t get to experience very often. Knowing that they will be there to talk through their impressions of your test is valuable too. What a rider remembers of a test is often a little at odds with what an observer sees. The judge has no context on you or your horse, they must comment and mark within fixed parameters. Your coach knows the background and context and can offer vital input as well. It is ironic that the riders with the most experience, who may well be coaches themselves, are the ones most likely to have coaches of their own in attendance when they compete. This particular camp format gave the riders a taste of what it is like to have the support system that some, though by no means all, professional riders experience.

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Reflecting on the experience of the camp in general I would absolutely recommend it. I did so beforehand because I firmly believe in Alison’s capability as a coach. Now, my conviction is even stronger. Although I was there as an observer I felt very included. The company was great. I realised that it did me a lot of good to sit and chat with other riders. Had I been planning to compete on that Sunday I would have felt like part of a team. Camps offer us a chance to be open, to share, to support one another. One of the things I wanted to do when I began writing was to show the connections and common ground that exists between all riders. The two days of the camp were full of opportunities to learn, to build confidence and to have fun. I won’t be able to be at the next one, but I really wish I could. I will look forward to hearing how all of the horses and riders are getting on though and hope to meet them again before too long!

There was a lovely goodie bag for each of the riders and one for me too! A big thank you to Alison and to Equissimo, Laura Mary Art and Equilibrium Products for putting this together; it made a great weekend even more memorable!

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Dressage Perspectives Featured Riders

I was told once that the horse world polarises people; that I would see the best and the worst of humanity within it. That has been so true. On the whole I have seen far more good than bad. I have been lucky and, where necessary, I have been ruthlessly selective. My advice to people entering the industry – find the good people, walk away from the wrong ones quickly and keep putting the horses first.

The creation of Dressage Perspectives arose from a conversation with a group of friends. One of the issues we discussed was the trend towards celebrity riders and the need for riders to represent themselves, or be represented professionally, in a more aggressive way than ever before. To consumers of publicity it is easy to imagine that it just happens, as a natural consequence of having talent or being in some way interesting. Of course this is not so. How does an article usually end up on the pages of a magazine, digital or otherwise? For that you must explore the synergy between Public Relations and Journalism. The mechanics of that process might shock some people; for me it just invokes a wary cynicism. Too much hinges on what riders win, which studs they ride for and the market value of the bloodstock that carries them to victory. The commercial wheels of the industry have to turn, I guess, but there is far more to the horse world than that. There are so many really wonderful people out there. My mission is to discover the inspiring teachers, the small-scale horse breeders so passionate about what they do that they operate for decades at break-even point, and the riders who, win or lose, plainly adore their horses. Those are the kind of people I want to write about.

There are those who would have us believe that media will only appeal if it is seamlessly slick and relentlessly aspirational, that the attention span of our audience is currently around a nanosecond, and that all we merit is the victory of style over substance. I disagree and this is why. Equestrians might enjoy escapism as much as anyone but the reality we inhabit is bounded by mud, love, discomfort and joy. Our best friends tread on our feet and sneeze all over our clean clothes. We struggle to forge careers that make no sense to our friends, families and bank managers. We have to be tenacious if we are in it for the long haul. Our stock can rise and drop with the state of an animal’s health. Oblivion is always beckoning. There are those around us who only love a rising star, those who want your style to cover for their lack of substance. Those people will be gone quicker than a rat up a drain if your luck turns for the worse. Knowing this, it is vital to identify and cherish the people who will still be around, those sponsors who will stick with you through a dry spell, owners who will say no to those who covet your rides, pupils who are there for what you know and not who you know. One of the more valid measures of success in our careers is the relationships we build and sustain.

A lady I know once said to me ‘it is all about bred by, ridden by, trained by and owned by’. Initially I shrugged off her cynical take on an industry I thought I knew better than she did. But, in a way, I must admit she was bang on the money, she identified exactly where the money is to be found. She was very wide of the mark when it comes to finding happiness, friendship, decency and humour though. I suppose that in life you find what you go looking for. I have found kindred spirits, equine and human, in the most wonderful and unlikely places. For me this world (not just the horse world) is all about the connections we make with other creatures. The connections between teachers, pupils, friends, mentors, grooms, owners, sponsors and above all that between the horse and its rider; these are the fabric of our world. It is those strands of connection I want to explore.

This Featured Riders series is an opportunity for me to talk to those riders who I think deserve to be talked about for all the right reasons. So far this year I have had the absolute pleasure to meet with Rowan Crosby and Alison Kenward, both of whom are true horsewomen with fascinating stories to tell. I am currently trying to do those stories justice as I write about them. We never know who will turn out to have a positive influence in our lives, however great or small. The more we connect with others and find common ground, the better our own lives and our horses’ lives will be. Sharing our stories and finding inspiration in one another is something I really believe is important. I hope that this new dimension to Dressage Perspectives is something that proves insightful and enriching!

 

Brilliance Versus Consistency

A Dressage Dilemma!

Which would you choose if you had to? If I said you can have a brilliant horse or a horse which will perform reliably well, which one would you take? Of course in the ideal world we wouldn’t have to choose, our horse would be brilliant and consistent. In reality most horses are not at either end of this spectrum but somewhere closer to the middle and we have to ride the horse we have on the day. There are horses, and indeed humans, though who definitely tend towards one extreme or another and all too frequently the human half of a combination selects a horse who is similar in disposition rather than one who complements his or her personality.

Personally I am drawn to brilliance over consistency. I value consistency and work at achieving it because I recognise it’s importance. In competition I often feel it to be an injustice when consistency triumphs over talent. I am well aware that this is personality driven and that I am not necessarily right to feel that way. A dressage test was, prior to 1921, a test for military riders and their horses. Now brilliance isn’t what you need on campaign, let alone in battle. Go back a few centuries and nobody ever said “shame, he was killed but did you see that floaty uphill trot the horse was doing?”Even now I strongly suspect army units on parade duty really wouldn’t want many of our top level dressage horses in their ranks. If the dressage test is a test of obedience, control and correct athletic development then the consistent horse deserves to win hands down.

But we have wandered a long way from where we started in 1921 (not that I personally remember) and civilian riders, amateur and professional alike, have gradually transformed the sport into something utterly different. A second thread has been woven into the fabric of what we do. It is as ancient and important as the need for a reliable horse in war. This second thread is the expressive power of the horse in display. Whenever a human climbs up onto the back of a horse that human will feel inclined to show off just a little! Some of us feel inclined to show off quite a lot. Re conjuring under saddle the display behaviours of the horse at liberty is a big part of dressage. It may not have been at the forefront of the mind when dressage tests were initially developed for officers chargers and cavalry mounts but it had been around forever in a broader social context. There has always been an elite prancing around on the backs of beautiful, valuable horses. When we re conjure those display behaviours in half ton creatures we play with fire. I think that is a subtle part of the appeal. When I hear people say dressage is for wusses I just grin and think of some horses I have ridden. I wonder just how long my hunting friends would remain onboard! As a rider I have never been particularly brave but I am adventurous. My desire to experience the sharper, hotter, more challenging horse has often won out over the fear I have felt curling in the pit of my stomach. The need to be a better rider for these horses has driven me to think, to read, to listen and try, when I might otherwise might not have bothered.

When I judge, as I was doing a few days ago, I have to be very very careful not to let my love of brilliance create a higher tolerance for mistakes than would otherwise be there if the horse were less impressive. I cannot have the mindset I would have as a rider or spectator. I cannot say a mistake did not matter in the broader context of potential future greatness. Sometimes I am the judge who allows consistency to triumph over talent and whereas that can seem galling it is also only right. The less brilliant horse is usually a trusting, willing partner to its rider. It tries its heart out and it might not make your jaw drop but it very often deserves its victory. I am always very aware of the two contrasting elements, the context of a test versus the forum for display, and it is a truly wonderful thing when a horse is the personification of both expression and control. That is when the role of a judge is easy. The rest of the time there is always an inner disagreement taking place, which has to be resolved each time in the space of a few seconds.

It is a good thing that there is such diversity of opinion and personality within the ranks of riders, coaches and judges. If we all had the same priorities it would be terrible. I was once told that only by tolerating imperfections in horses would I ever get close to perfection. It was seemingly contradictory advice but it began to make sense over the years. Now I wonder if some of the less brilliant horses might have been more so if they had not been burdened with inhibitions by riders who value control at all costs. I cannot recall the exact quote but Nuno Olivera wrote of there being, in his opinion, subdued horses and educated horses. I have experienced the difference and I know what I prefer. When we take a young colt or filly out of the herd and train it I think we have a duty to respect its personality and offer it an education which is customised for that personality. Hopefully we can allow the brilliance to grow in even the quietest of horses and equally cultivate some self control in the most unruly of horses. This has to be the ultimate test of the rider, to shape the horse’s personality without crushing it. Hopefully then, if we choose to, we will be able to bring it down the centre line towards a judge who will envy us every second of the ride.

Achieving Lightness

Lightness is the seam of gold we are all searching  for when we ride our horses; even when we don’t realise we were looking for it. Those moments of ease and harmony are unmistakably pleasant. It isn’t always something that happens in an arena. There is a wise old saying “Get over rough ground lightly” which reminds us of a time when horses were a primary means of transport. If you do have to ride over rough ground though, it is worth taking literally.

Like many riders I discovered lightness quite by accident. I must have been about eighteen at the time and very new to dressage. I was sitting on a  schoolmaster horse in a group lesson, he had been clipped that morning and we were at the back of the ride. I felt him gather under me, his neck stretched, his back began to lift and swing, it felt amazing, we were floating on air. One minute I was looking in the arena mirrors feeling rather smug and the next moment I was carted up the ride and flung on the floor. I realised that the feeling I had just before he took off was my first real taste of collection. My teacher confirmed this and pointed out that all horses are capable of giving these feelings. They already know more about lightness than we can ever teach them.

That day could have been a negative influence on my riding because that amazing feeling was linked in my mind with a violent fall. I landed badly and hurt my hip. After a rest and a week or two on the quieter school horses I was back to normal, at least on the outside. That fall had changed me as a rider forever. All I could think about was that magical feeling, how intoxicatingly perfect it had been. I wanted to know how to get that feeling and keep it, even if I was half afraid of it!

I was lucky to be based on a yard where I could see some of the lightest, loveliest dressage riding possible. I watched it avidly and soaked up the tuition and clinics that went on there. One day I was watching a man who is rightly world renowned as a rider and coach. His horses seem to dance and shimmer, always light and always happy. That became my blueprint for excellence and it still is.

So there I was, very green, very inspired and with no idea how to get from where I was to where I wanted to be. I knew my seat was part of the equation, a big part I suspected. It was a good training yard and we all knew that it was important to sit well. I took this a step further. If I wanted to ride like the man who inspired me then I had to sit like he did. That one is still a work in progress; I would say I ride in the same style and leave it at that!

There are many excellent riders and teachers of dressage but the degree to which lightness is a part of what they do varies. If you want to learn about it you must have a teacher who understands it. Within the world of high level competition there are successful riders who ride in lightness and others who do not. It is not about being able to ride the airs of high school, it is about how you ride them.

One of the secrets is to think always about allowing the moment of suspension to be a ‘jump’, of letting the horse be airborne. Nothing kills off lightness like an oppressive hand or a horse compressed tightly between leg and hand. This brings me back to my first taste of collection. When we let the horse be airborne, let the maximal power through and hold it with aids that whisper, we have to trust the horse and we have to merit it’s trust.

 

International Dressage Rider

What idea does that phrase convey to you? Elite sport, being selected for a team, prestige and recognition? It is a proudly mentioned tag line in many riders personal advertisements, an important way to distinguish themselves in a crowded market place. It really means something to have been selected to represent your country; in theory it means you are one of the best. It is a dream which motivates many riders and one which a tiny minority sees come true. Personally, I knew I didn’t stand a chance and that is realism not defeatism talking. I lack the tenacity and the resources; I knew at twenty that I would be setting myself up to fail if I chose that particular dream.

But, the truth is that being a dressage rider automatically makes you part of an international community and that is one of the best things about it. Whether you struggle with a 20m circle or one tempi changes there are people all over the world who share your pain! There are books, DVDs, internet sites in just about every language dedicated to helping you find solutions. Coaches travel the world to share their wisdom and experience. There are job opportunities and training opportunities all over the globe.

I’ve met riders in all disciplines who chose to look outward and take opportunities large and small. I am one of those riders. Equally I have met many riders who know very little about what happens outside of their own county or region. This I will never understand.

I learnt a language so that I could understand one of my coaches and I am learning another in order to make the most of my next training sabbatical. Dressage has helped expand my personal and cultural horizons and the effect on my life has been nothing but positive.

Social media has made it easier than ever to be part of a worldwide network of riders, to buy products from other countries, to source horses, to learn about different traditions and perspectives on training horses. Even if you can’t travel to seminars and competitions you will find detailed reports available online. Finding out which clinicians are visiting your country has never been easier. So if you are leaving school or college check out international jobs rather than working at the yard down the road.

On my travels I have noticed that riders are often intensely proud of their national identity and heritage but the best riders everywhere have an outward looking, international mindset. Looking outward beyond your region, or even your nation, can change you as a rider forever. It could be as simple as picking up a book, or as complex as moving to another country, but either way you should go for it! In many ways its a metaphor for riding itself, look up and look outward.